North Korea is making its debut at the Paralympic Games, a potential sign of change in a country where, according to activists, disabled people have faced enforced isolation and sterilisation.
Sixteen-year-old swimmer Rim Ju-song, a left arm and left leg amputee, is the reclusive, nuclear-armed nation’s first and only athlete in the London Games, which open on Wednesday. He will compete in the 50m freestyle S6 event.
Nine officials from the North Korean delegation were at the Olympic Park in east London on Monday and said they were looking forward to being involved, although they were unsure about how the teenager would fare.
“He has been training very hard but I don’t know what will happen,” said Kim Sung-chol, the team doctor, adding that Rim, who was given a wildcard entry, had not competed internationally to get to the qualifying standard.
“But the main thing is that we are participating to experience the Games, then next time, if we can improve further, then maybe at the next Paralympics (in Rio de Janeiro in 2016) we can be involved more,” he said in English.
North Korea won four gold medals and two bronze at this summer’s London Olympics, finishing 20th in the overall medal table to register the country’s best performance since Barcelona in 1992.
The athletes returned home to a heroes’ welcome on August 17, with cheering crowds lining the streets of the capital Pyongyang before Premier Choe Yong-rim and other top officials hosted a banquet reception, according to state media.
Vice Premier Kim Yong-jin said in a speech that the gold medallists had glorified “the great era of Kim Jong-un”, who took over as the country’s supreme leader after his father Kim Jong-il’s death in December last year.
The communist state has featured in international sport for many years, most notably the 1966 football World Cup where they reached the quarter-finals, losing to Eusebio’s Portugal 5-3.
But people with physical or intellectual impairments have faced a long history of discrimination. Acute malnutrition, which stunts development in children, has exacerbated rates of disability, according to the United Nations.
South Korean activists and human rights reports from the US State Department have alleged in the past that disabled people were quarantined within camps far outside Pyongyang and forcibly sterilised.
Charities working in the country, however, have said that attitudes are slowly changing and the government now offers welfare programmes for disabled people while there is a para-sports centre in Pyongyang.
North Korea’s neighbour and arch-rival, South Korea, first participated at the Paralympics in 1968 and has sent athletes to every Games since, winning 279 medals in total, including 110 gold.
Kim Sung-chol said that North Korea has a number of athletes with a disability, particularly in table tennis and powerlifting, yet all failed to qualify for London.
He also said that his compatriots were supportive of para-sport, which could bode well for the future.
“Of course we have not organised this (the Paralympics) but people do enjoy it. Koreans really like their sport,” he added.
“At the Paralympics, we are first timers. Maybe in the future we can select some excellent athletes and win medals.”